Who’s to argue with Warren Buffett?

Jul 2, 2012

By Jerry Bellune
Publishers' Toolbox

You probably hear many of the same questions we hear in the communities we cover. “How is your newspaper doing?” or “How badly is the Internet hurting you?” And you probably answer, “We’re doing better than the national media would have you believe.”
We’re not alone in working for the survival of newspapers by what we do for our communities.
One of the world’s wealthiest men is betting $142 million on our future.
Warren Buffett’s investment company paid that for 63 Media General newspapers.
In a letter to the newspapers’ editors and publishers, the billionaire investor said he believes “newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future. It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your town.”
A newspaper reader himself, Buffett reminds us of three vital reader attraction and retention strategies.
1. We must remain profitable or we will not be able to publish.
Our chief print competitor cut staff and coverage to increase his margins. After nine years of this, he asked us to buy him out—for pennies on the dollar. His paid circulation had gone from 9,000 subscribers to less than 1,000.
Buffett expects the newspapers to be self-sustaining financially. That means it must attract and retain subscribers if advertisers are to invest ad dollars with us.
The way to do this, as all of us know, is not to cut resources or space for local content.
As newspapers’ revenues declined, many chains reduced news space and personnel. The chain-owned daily newspaper in my market is not what it once was, and people notice. They ask how we can continue to publish a robust newspaper when the daily doesn’t.
Our answer is simple: “The community has been good to us.” By that, we mean our readers and advertisers value a newspaper that reports fairly and accurately.
Buffett agrees. “A newspaper that reduces its coverage,” he said, “is certain to reduce its readership.”
2. Local sports teams make big local news.
One of our strengths—and I hope one of yours—is the coverage of local high school sports. I have an ambitious sports editor who expanded our coverage from seven to 12 high schools.
Buffett agrees there, too. He said he wants his papers to “thoroughly cover all aspects of area life, particularly local sports.
“No one has ever stopped reading halfway through a story that was about them or their neighbors.”
3. We must not give away our expensively gathered local news.
Buffett supports paywalls on local newspaper websites. I was forced to do that seven years ago. I had lost 20 percent of my subscribers because they could get local news coverage online free.
Giving away our expensive news coverage free “is an unsustainable model,” Buffett said.
We must protect and grow our position as community leaders and as the primary source of local news. That means online and in print.
In a quick survey of community newspaper websites, I found much local advertising online. That leads me to believe that selling advertising packages of print and online ads is the way to go. And one of its chief advantages is that we can track click-throughs from our sites to advertisers sites.
Google Analytics can give us solid numbers we can share with our advertisers.
July takeaway thought. Do you have a monthly newsletter for your advertisers? We’ve found our monthly “Marketing Ad-Visor” newsletter opens doors for us. If you want details on how to publish your own advertising newsletter, e-mail me at Jerry@JerryBellune.com. © The Bellune Co. 2012

Jerry Bellune and his family own book, newspaper and newsletter publishing companies. For information on his coaching program exclusively for newspaper owners, email him at Jerry@JerryBellune.com.